Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2010) $24.99
Reviewed by Jack Downey
Stanley Hauerwas finds himself in a terrible predicament: he’s a famous American theologian. Perhaps the most famous American theologian. This may or may not mean he’s actually famous by conventional standards, but he seems plenty concerned. He has made himself a very fine career as an iconoclastic ethicist, condemning assimilationist Christianity, academic “respectability,” the military, ill treatment of the differently-abled, and any number of other contemporary issues where Christian mediocrity is laid bare. He has done this largely as a tenured faculty member of the University of Notre Dame and, most recently, Duke Divinity School (with a joint appointment at Duke Law). In 2001, this self-proclaimed institutional “outsider” was anointed “America’s best theologian” by Time magazine. What’s more, he has become an adjective – the benchmark of the bona fide “public intellectual,” a category that Hauerwas disdains. For all his Hauerwasian jeremiads, this “Christian contrarian” has developed a very “respectable” life. Along the way, he has acquired a devoted, often impressively credentialed, and sometimes annoyingly obsessive, personality cult, as well as a laundry list of theological and administrative enemies. Churchill might well have described him as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Or, he’s a hypocritical narcissist. He might acknowledge that he is both, but most likely he would prefer to respond simply that he is a Christian. He is “Stanley Hauerwas,” and Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir wrestles with the stark fact that his name itself carries hefty intellectual baggage, and what that means for Hauerwas the Christian disciple.
Throughout Hannah’s Child, it becomes evident that Hauerwas has, if nothing else, taken to heart the oft-cited mandate levied by Parisian archbishop Emmanuel Célestin Suhard: “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” Hauerwas adopts this as the benchmark for authentic Christianity and a critical lens for reviewing his contribution to contemporary ethics. The latent anxiety that Hauerwas evinces regarding his legacy, which contrary to his notorious “up-yours attitude,” as he calls it, highlights the apparent bifurcation that is “Stanley Hauerwas”: a bricklayer’s son – if you’ve ever read anything by or about Hauerwas, you will know at the very least that he is a bricklayer’s son from Texas – who is steeped in the world of elite scholarship, a pugilistic pacifist, an outspoken critic of the “American project” who has been described as quintessentially American, a twice-married man who is overtly suspicious of marriage, a professional theologian who finds it difficult to pray. Hauerwas could be either the embodiment of the Christian paradox, or a designer imposter social critic who believes his own hype, and has unwittingly bought into mainline America hook, line, and sinker. (If you haven’t read anything by or about Hauerwas, this is a good place to start.)
Hauerwas himself concedes that, “[w]e are complex creatures constituted by contradictions we refuse to acknowledge.” This, coupled with the natural fallibility of human memory, poses obvious consistency issues for the memoirist in terms of craft, but additionally can prove catastrophic for the human attempt to avoid self-deception. In 1977, presumably decades before Hannah’s Child was on his radar, Hauerwas composed an essay addressing the daunting task of autobiography:
Contrary to our dominant presumptions, we are seldom conscious of what we are doing or who we are. We choose to stay ignorant of certain engagements with the world, for to put them all together often asks too much of us and sometimes threatens the more enjoyable engagements. We profess sincerity and normally try to abide by that profession, yet we neglect to acquire the very skills that will test that profession of sincerity against our current performance. On the contrary, we deliberately allow certain engagements to go unexamined, quite aware that areas left unaccountable tend to cater to self-interest. As a result of that inertial policy, the condition of self-deception becomes the rule rather than the exception in our lives, and often in the measure that we are trying to be honest and sincere.
For the sake of reducing cognitive dissonance and maintaining a unified identity, we consistently and compulsively reconstruct our past, and selectively cut and paste. Stanley Hauerwas lives in tension with his larger-than-life persona – “Stanley Hauerwas” – whom he professes to renounce, but can’t quite seem to shake. Which leaves a reader to ask: Does he see himself clearly?
Hauerwas consistently paints himself in the role of the ecclesiastically homeless perennial academic “outsider”; he whimsically refers to himself as a “high-church Mennonite.” His “I’m a maverick” self-depiction can, at times, become overwhelmingly repetitious and unconvincing, and is conspicuously reminiscent of 2008 presidential campaign propaganda. It does, however, eventually become clear that this identity is, in fact, constitutive of Hauerwas’ understanding of his particular vocation as a Christian. Hauerwas interprets his sense of existential itinerancy through the lens of Luke 9:58, and concludes that, truly, “Christians have no home.”
Hannah’s Child chronicles Hauerwas’ attempt to render himself intelligible, to fight his own natural impulse to reconstruct his narrative in the search for unity. It is not a classic apologia, and Hauerwas commendably resists the tectonic impulse to employ Augustine’s template for the Christian memoir as a kind of autobiographical Mad Libs. His story is a chronicle of his professional development, his Christian formation, and perhaps most of all, an hommage to friends and family who have mentored and nourished him throughout the course. It is also a story of abuse and survival. Hauerwas’ struggle to reconcile himself to himself skates just below the surface of these chapters. Whether “Stanley Hauerwas” really qualifies as famous depends on what circles you travel in, but his inability to avoid the fact that he is somebody in the theological world forces him to address his intellectual luggage, one way or the other. Whether he can, in fact, see himself clearly, free from self-deception, determines his success as a Christian witness. While Hauerwas is not able to fully dismantle his own theological celebrity, his portrait becomes increasingly lucid throughout Hannah’s Child, and hints that the very process of memoir composition has, for him, adopted the character of spiritual exercise.
Jack Downey is an activist and doctoral candidate in Theology at Fordham University. His dissertation investigates modern asceticism and the Catholic Worker movement. Previous writing has appeared in Tricycle Magazine: The Buddhist Review.
See here for Hauerwas’ reflections on his memoir and its general reception.